The Collegian
Friday, June 21, 2024

Richmond grads bridge digital divide, out of pocket

Dominique Simon, a 2011 Richmond graduate, recounted the following in one of his papers from his days as a sophomore:

"I got down to my knees; it would be of no use to try and explain something from my height. I put my fingers onto the screen, and I instructed her to watch my own movements. Once a letter appeared, I moved my finger, and she moved hers. The eyes never fell onto the keyboard. Together, we navigated the lesson, and as time went on the smile on that girl's face only got bigger and brighter. When she came to the realization that she could do it, that it was possible for her, we both grinned at each other. We had emerged through that wilderness together, and we had both taken something away from that experience."

Simon, 22, began Voice to the World as an after-school program at Henderson Middle School in Richmond, Va., for students who, until then, were writing their essays by hand because they had never learned to use a computer.

He mentioned the initiative to Bonner scholar Prayas Neupane, a 2011 graduate, who had been volunteering at Refugee and Immigration Services, a non-profit organization popular among Richmond students.

"[Refugees] came to me for help regarding jobs and even using Rossetta stone for English," Neupane, 21, said. "However, they weren't able to use computers in refugee camps because of lack of access. They struggled even to understand basic computer instructions.

"That's how it got started. We first started the program in Henderson, and from there, we expanded it to Refugee and Immigration Services."

Thus, the inchoate initiative began to establish itself, and currently, Voice to the World awaits its tax-exempt status. Simon, president and CEO, and Neupane, director, are supported by two board members: Rose Ann Gutierrez, current Richmond senior, and Zhivko Illeieff, a 2011 graduate.

"We are in the process of expanding classes to different schools and organizations in the area," Simon said. "For next semester, two programs will begin here at UR for staff and at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. In the future, our board would like to see us expanding across the state."

Other board members include the likes of Tinina Cade, associate vice president for student development, Jeffrey Pollack, assistant professor of management and John Moeser, senior fellow of the Center for Civic Engagement.

As for funding, Simon said: "As we wait for paperwork to go through from the IRS, we can't raise any money. However, we both have part-time jobs on campus - myself as a writing tutor for student athletes."

Neupane works part-time as the Build-it program assistant at the Center for Civic Engagement at Richmond.

"We are currently working full-time [for Voice to The World] without any pay and that becomes challenging after some time," Neupane said. "But even running programs become tricky since we travel a lot, and we are basically funding everything out of our pocket.

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"We still get most of our volunteers from UR. Various organizations such as The Boys & Girls Clubs of America and The YMCA have wanted to partner with us."

Regarding implementation of their services, Neupane stressed the need for flexibility.

"Since most of our students were from low-income families, they often did not have transportation," he said. "Often with the refugees, they could only attend classes that were in their neighborhood. Thus, the idea of going to the community partners instead of having a computer lab to run computer classes originated."

Securing volunteers to run programs is among Voice to the World's most pressing challenges, Simon said. He intends to devote at least four more years to its success.

Contact reporter Tanveer Ahmed at

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